How to Detach from Someone with Borderline Personality Disorder

Understanding Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a mental disorder characterized by extreme mood swings, trouble with interpersonal relationships, a tendency toward impulsivity, intense fear of abandonment, and an unstable self-image. BPD is most common in females ages 18 to 27 years old and can diminish with age. 

The main feature is a pervasive pattern of instability in interpersonal relationships and self-image, marked by impulsivity. BPD is not a multiple personality disorder, although at times it may seem that way as people with BPD tend to flip the script very quickly. One second, they may be happy, and the next second there may be a huge emotional change. 

Signs and Symptoms 

For a confirmed diagnosis, the individual questioning should seek out a medical doctor, psychotherapist, or psychologist.  Though the following key factors are usually an indicator that BPD is present in your loved one/friend/partner: 

  • Intense fear of rejection, separation, or abandonment
  • Rapid changes between thinking someone is perfect to believe they are evil.
  • Risky behaviors include unsafe sex, gambling, drug use, or accumulating credit card debt.
  • Polydrug use is often common in individuals with BPD as well as the use of sedatives, hypnotics, and alcohol as a means of self-medicating. 
  • Threats of suicide or self-harm
  • Difficulty empathizing with other people.
  • Mood swings from euphoria to intense shame or self-criticism
  • Frequently losing one’s temper.

One of the most prominent features of people with BPD is instability. Their relationships with others are likely to be unstable. They will one day report how wonderful a person is and then the next day has expressions of extreme and intense anger, disapproval, condemnation, and even hate towards that same person a week later. 

Then a month later, the person with BPD is once again singing the praises of that same person. These reactions can be unsettling for individuals who care for the person with BPD, though remaining compassionate and understanding in your point of view can aid you in your communication with the person with BPD.

Understanding BPD Style and Attachment 

BPD can present in different ways. An individual with BPD can have classic traits and can have quiet BPD or high functioning. The type displayed may point out what type of attachment style they have. If the person displays high anxiety, there may be features of co-dependency/dependent personality and negative views of themselves. Highly avoidant BPDs may have more negative views of others. (2)

  • Anxious-preoccupied attachment – This individual is going to display high anxiety and likely have a negative self-view. This self-view is usually a reflection of their upbringing, causing the belief that they are unworthy of love and care. This individual will seek intimacy and approval and fear rejection, and often feel abandoned. The behavior and mood displays will show fear, anger, and hypersensitivity to the smallest hint of disapproval or abandonment. This attachment style in BPD is “classic” BPD(2)
  • Dismissive-avoidant attachment – This display will show negative views of others. This could be from an early learned experience that others cannot be counted on and only have themselves to rely on. Painful feelings tend to be minimized. Childhood memories may not be remembered, or it may be uncomfortable to speak of them. Coping through normalizing, intellectualizing, and rationalizing is the norm. There is a high value on independence and autonomy, and avoidance of feeling overwhelmed or controlled. There also may be difficulties in trusting others. This attachment style in BPD is referenced as “quiet” BPD. (2)
  • Disorganized attachment – This is often associated with prolonged exposure to abuse and/or neglect, often from a caregiver in early childhood or throughout childhood. Coping strategies are often splitting and dissociation and/or depersonalization and/or derealization. Disorganized attachment styles are more comfortable in chaos and unpredictability and can be a part of a cycle of abuse. (2)

Detaching From a Loved One with BPD

When looking at the above attachment styles and taking time to understand the person’s background, you can take steps toward healthy detachment using healthy boundaries and assertions. 

Keep in mind that individuals with BPD experience heightened emotional pain around perceived abandonment and the idea of being alone. Starting out with compassion, a gentle approach in language, and avoiding blame and defensiveness will help the detachment. It may also provide modeling of healthy interpersonal effectiveness. (3)

Healthy communication tips: (3)

  • Remain calm and respectful – A common reaction to feeling disrespected is to become defensive. This will then perpetuate a cycle of criticism and defensiveness. It is natural to lash out when feeling attached, frustrated, or unheard. This will only result in the loved one feeling victimized. Instead, create gentle start-ups by talking about feelings using “I” statements that express positive needs. (3)(4)
  • Refrain from blaming – Individuals with BPD may inquire or plead as to what they did wrong, which can often create an explanation that feels like blame and create an escalation on both sides. Try using appreciation by reminding your loved one of their positive qualities and finding gratitude in positive actions. (3)(4)
  • Refrain from getting defensive – Defensiveness sounds invalidating and can feel as though feelings are not real or are based on misperception. This can be met with further contempt. Instead, look where responsibility can be taken. (3)(4)
  • Validate – Validation can look like responding with “I understand” or “I can see why you would feel that way, I’m sorry for the hurt.” Listen instead of speaking over them. (3)
  • Enforce Boundaries – For a loved one with BPD, a breakup can feed into their worst fear of abandonment, but it serves no one any good to lash out or belittle. If yelling or physical threats occur, be comfortable with and prepare to assert that the behavior is unacceptable and stop the engagement immediately, even if it means removing yourself. It’s ok to continue the conversation at another time if appropriate. 

It’s never easy to end a relationship, but taking responsibility for your choice rather than justifying and rationalizing your decision will have a lesser impact on both. (3)